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Maybe it just makes the story better

Richard Riggsbee was a lawyer in Durham, and a character. For many years, he practiced with Bill Cotter, who is still a character. Bill is from Boston, a Vietnam Veteran, and a graduate of Duke Law School. Richard was from Hillsborough, a graduate of Hillsborough High School, and a former assistant clerk of court.

In fact, Richard’s last degree was from Hillsborough High School. There was a time when lawyers could study law, sit for the bar exam, and earn a license to practice. According to Bill, Richard was the last lawyer licensed in North Carolina without graduating college, much less law school.

On paper, they seem like an odd combination for a law partnership. Knowing them, it is hard to imagine a more suitable pair.

When I first practiced criminal law in Durham County over twenty-five years ago, one or the other was often participating in, observing, or pontificating about whatever trial was occurring. They were smart, savvy, and entertaining. Each told his fair share of stories in smoke-filled lawyers’ lounges.

Richard attended high school with a Hillsborough lawyer named Lonnie Coleman, who served as a district court judge late in his career. Lonnie would sometimes interrupt court to tell stories.

During one such interruption, Lonnie bragged that Richard ran track in high school and was state champion in the mile. He explained that it was especially impressive because Richard ran the race barefoot.

Afterward, Richard confronted Lonnie, “you know that’s a damn lie. I didn’t run that race barefoot.” Lonnie’s conceded, “I know, but it makes the story better.”

In those days, fear, tension, and excitement surrounded any criminal term of court. Judges, lawyers, and clerks gathered in back rooms to drink coffee, smoke, and tell stories during breaks. Defense lawyers waited in the halls to hear about trials, offer advice, and lend support. People lost their liberties or lived to fight another day.

Trying a criminal case is stressful, invigorating, and sometimes heartbreaking. We may cut years off our lives doing this work, but people like Richard, Bill, and Lonnie sure make it entertaining.

I thought about them this week when I read concerns over “disinformation” on social media. I am at best a novice when it comes to social media. I look at my Twitter account, but don’t think I have ever Tweeted. I had a short stint on Facebook, but quit to avoid reading some of the unlovely posts by lovely friends and family members.

So, I have trouble understanding the idea of “disinformation.” While we may be vulnerable, we have to assume some risks by participating. Can’t we trust our filters?

One obvious purpose of social media is to make shit up or, at a minimum, add our individual spin--portray our children in the most positive light, call out the hypocrisy of our adversaries, and exploit differences with others.

Even the truth is dispensed in partial batches. Can you tell the whole story in 280 characters?

Professionally, Richard, Bill, or Lonnie followed the rules. I would be surprised to hear that they lied to opposing counsel, mislead the court, or did anything to undermine a client’s cause.

At the same time, I never put much stock into a story they told to a room full of lawyers and cigarette smoke. We might relieve a little stress by taking that approach to social media.

We are criminal trial lawyers. We represent people accused of criminal offenses who risk losing everything. We work to get them their best results and back to leading productive lives.

Call if you need us, or if you just want to say hello.


P.S. Richard died a few years ago. Lonnie purports to practice in Hillsborough. Bill Cotter practices law everyday in Durham. I would send him this message, but he doesn't have an email address.

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